While Kevin Gustafson's classmates hot-foot it to the closest DMV for their driver's license the minute they turn 16, he hasn't even bothered to get his learner's permit.
His ambition is bigger than a Camaro or Mustang.
His freedom, he says, isn't found behind the wheel of a car but in the uncluttered space hundreds of feet above earth.
When the alarm clock rings early Wednesday morning, his 16th birthday, Gustafson plans to climb alone for the first time into the cramped cockpits of three separate airplanes and earn his wings. He will make his first-ever solo flight in a four-seat Cessna 172, and, he hopes, earn his student pilot license on the first day he is eligible to. He plans to follow that achievement with a solo ascent in a two-seat Cessna 152, then finish off the day soaring alone in a peaceful, motorless glider.
"It's the freedom you get up there," Gustafson says of his passion for flying. "There are no roads or lines restricting you. It's great. It's just you and the air."
Gustafson says his plan to solo in three airplanes in a single day will satisfy a personal goal. "Anybody can solo in one plane," he says.
After he gets his license, he plans to continue his training with instruction in instrument flying. He's bent on a future in aviation--he figures he'll eventually fly 747s for a major airline.
With the guidance of his Seal Beach neighbor and flight instructor, Lynn Krogh, Gustafson has spent about 2 1/2 years learning to fly and clocked more than 60 hours of flight time.
"There are very few kids of that age motivated enough to see this through," says Krogh, a United Airlines pilot.
Statistics kept by the Federal Aviation Administration indicate that just under 50,000 learner's certificates were issued nationwide in 1997 to beginner pilots of all ages; the agency doesn't keep records on how many of those go on to solo and earn licenses.
Annie Akmakjian of Orange County Flight Center at John Wayne Airport said that typically less than than 10% of the school's enrollment of 100 to 150 students yearly will be teens. "It's not something that's very normal, and you don't see it every day, but it is getting more popular," Akmakjian said.
Gustafson's flight instructor says his pupil has both tenacity and skill--maintaining a 3.0 GPA at Los Alamitos High School and singing in the school's competitive Show Choir, in addition to his pilot studies.
For his part, Gustafson says he jumps at any opportunity to get behind the controls of an airplane. In exchange for his flying lessons, the youth routinely washes his teacher's Cessna, keeps an eye on the pilot's home when he's working and helps out in whatever other ways he can.
"It's fun to see him dedicate himself so thoroughly to something," said Kevin's father, Bruce Gustafson. "I don't know if I trust him in my car, but I trust him with an airplane."
Federal rules limit youngsters from obtaining pilot's licenses before they turn 16. To earn a student pilot's license, youths must pass a written exam and safely fly alone with a flight instructor vouching for their success. Student pilots are allowed the privileges of a regular pilot but can't carry passengers. At 17, teens can obtain a private pilot's license after passing a flight check given by the FAA. Students can solo in gliders at 14.
While there is no restriction on the age at which someone can begin to learn to fly, Congress two years ago passed a law prohibiting licensed pilots from turning a plane's controls over to a child attempting to set a record.
The legislation was introduced following the death of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old Pescadero, Calif., girl who perished along with her father and her flight instructor while trying to become the youngest person to fly across the country.
Gustafson said his plan to solo in three airplanes is not an attempt to set a youth record and should not be interpreted as one.
"I really shouldn't be compared to a 7-year-old," the high school sophomore said.
His teacher was a bit more emphatic about any comparisons the public might draw between almost 16-year-old Kevin and 7-year-old Jessica.
"Most pilots view things like that and shake their heads," Krogh says. "You could put a goldfish in there and say the goldfish flew. The instructor is always there to make the decisions. In fact, it's almost ludicrous to think that an 8- or 9-year-old could fly an airplane."
A serious teen student is another matter, he added. Since Gustafson's first day behind the controls, he has trained to be the pilot in command. Krogh said Gustafson has been ready to pilot the plane alone for the past year and the federal restrictions are all that have kept the teen from taking to the skies in solitary abandon.
There is little question that Gustafson is in command. From the moment he arrives on the tarmac he assumes a posture of control and knowledge. His preflight routine includes checking the plane's nuts and bolts, gasoline and oil levels and cleanliness.
In the pilot's seat, he reviews intricate charts outlining air space, altitudes and landmarks in his flight path.
"There's no signs in the air so you have to know where you are," he explains.
As Gustafson taxis the four-seat Cessna at Long Beach Airport, he listens to weather reports, does flight checks and radios the tower.
Gustafson explains that the single-engine propeller jet will do top speeds of 120 to 130 mph. "I love the speed!" he exclaims.
Then he's off. "We have liftoff," he says, focusing on tower instructions and takeoff routines and watching for other airplanes. Gustafson banks the plane to the right and explains the flight to his passengers. "The air can push us around a bit more than in a big plane," he says. "We get bullied."
There are a million things to remember, and Gustafson seems unfazed by the pressure.
During a recent training session Gustafson asked his instructor one question. "I never touched a thing--never a knob," Krogh says after the smooth flight and slightly bumpy landing. "It's pretty impressive that I never did anything."
That is why the flight instructor knows that Wednesday is the day Gustafson will sail alone into his future.
Krogh has planned the traditional pilot's ritual of cutting off the new pilot's shirttails following his first solo flight. Kevin's parents plan to be on hand to cheer their son. "We'll make sure we're there to see it. It's a onetime opportunity," his father says.
Gustafson is bound and determined to earn his wings on his birthday.
"If it doesn't happen that day, the magic just isn't there," Gustafson says. He's so determined that he's got a long-distance backup plan if the weather is bad: He and Krogh will fly to Arizona if they have to find clear skies.